Brexit: Minister reiterates need for comprehensive UK-EU deal

Brexit – Brittany Ferries – Speech by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, at the inauguration of the new Brittany Ferries Atalante building (excerpts)

Saint-Malo, 7 February 2020


I’d like to come back to Brittany Ferries, because there’s a rather symbolic aspect I wanted to draw attention to.

2 January 1973 was the United Kingdom’s second day in the European Union and the first day a ship, the Kerisnel, belonging to what was then BAI, sailed to the UK. We could say you were the first “Brex-iners”, because at the outset Alexis Gourvennec had this kind of great intuition, this vision, foresight that there were possible markets there and opportunities to help open up Brittany, and he was right. Except that everything has changed so much since! That first ship carried mainly onions, there were a few vegetables, but the main purpose of the link between agriculture and the sea was to supply vegetables and similar products to the UK. Many things have changed since; you’ve become international – Spain, Ireland – and diversified. In a way, you’ve gone global. And by the same token, you’re going to be playing a strong hand in the discussions which are now going to begin on the future relationship between the UK and the European Union.

I know – as Jean-Marc said – how difficult the period you’ve just gone through has been, firstly because of doubt. It wasn’t so much the break [with Europe] as doubt which disrupted the discussions and the company’s life, which included a significant financial loss due to the fall in the pound; but it was the uncertainty which cast a shadow. Can we now say “at last”? Can we say “really”? “Ah, right?” At any rate, it’s done, and Brexit is here. But I sense, with this inauguration, a strong desire to tackle your company’s future relations optimistically and proactively. (…)

So a new phase is going to begin, which we’re embarking on with determination, because I’m convinced, with the government, that Brexit will be what we ourselves make of it. Of course, another party is involved, but we’re in a phase when we’ve got to be proactive, initiate proposals and be imaginative and innovative. It’ll be what we make of it.

Moreover, Boris Johnson – I won’t say “my friend, Boris Johnson”, but I happen to know him because we were colleagues for a few months, a few months mainly of crises and not solely ones to do with Brexit, because he was Foreign Secretary – made this great declaration, which I share wholeheartedly, after the decisive vote: “this is not an end, but a beginning.”

Yes, it’s a beginning. And for us, it’s not an end, but a beginning. And it’s a beginning, first with what’s going to be an intense, invigorating, probably tough discussion – it’s the start of the toughest bit – but during it we’ll ensure that our interests, values and commitments are protected, whether as regards respecting the European Union’s autonomous decision-making, the integrity of the single market or the balance between rights and obligations.

The basic principle is relatively straightforward. For a while it was said that the UK, when in the European Union, had one foot in and one out. I think some people – here I’m addressing our friends across the Channel –, I think some people in the UK think they’ll now be able to have one foot out and one in. Well, no! Both feet are and will remain out.

And it’s on the basis of that fact that we must define the new relationships. There are many, they aren’t based solely on trade. (…) And here we’ve got to spell things out very clearly: we want to play by the rules in terms of openness – trade openness, but also regulatory convergence, i.e. you can’t go and operate in Europe without complying with its rules – that’s what we’re setting as a precondition, which is in the mandate the 27 have entrusted to Michel Barnier for discussion.

And secondly, there isn’t just the trade part; it isn’t automatic. There are other subjects we must tackle, be they to do with internal security, transport or setting quotas – all this will require intense discussion, with a central objective for us – let me come back to what’s essential –, i.e. reaching a comprehensive agreement. (…) The discussion can only be comprehensive. So the substance must take priority over the timetable.

The new agreement will have to cover all areas and, of course, fisheries. I’d like here to say a few words on the subject. Several speakers before – Loïc Chesnay-Girard and the Mayor of Saint-Malo – referred to it. We won’t compromise on this issue. We don’t view fisheries as just another industry – for several reasons.

Firstly, because historically it’s a matter which has always been very political in Europe and it isn’t entirely a coincidence that the accession negotiations for Norway and Iceland, which didn’t join in the end, hit a snag over fisheries issues.

Secondly, because thousands of jobs are at stake, many fisheries, processing and haulage companies. We’ll ensure that all these interests are taken into consideration in the agreements and we’re going to give it absolute priority, with this strange reversal of history, because Brexit will put fisheries at the heart of Europe’s strategy and of our action at national level. In other words, indirectly, through Brexit, fishing is gaining importance and coming at the top of the negotiation agenda. I wanted to say that here, in Brittany. Amélie de Montchalin will be following all the issues linked to the negotiations especially closely, but this is a major issue for us. That’s true in Brittany because 50% of French fishing is Breton, and many activities and businesses depend on access to British waters.

And we’re going to ensure our own interests are furthered on three issues. First of all, distribution keys to guarantee access – I see the President of the National Fisheries Committee is listening to me carefully, but I think we very much agree on the fundamentals –, multiannual arrangements for managing stocks, and conditions for fair competition. Under no circumstances – and I say this to you too, M. Le Nézet – will fisheries act as an adjustment variable in the trade negotiations. Once, in another post, I experienced the anchovy war; we don’t want a herring war. So we’ll be totally vigilant. I think we’ll get there; on this point I’ve sensed the language of our British friends opening up slightly, because the United Kingdom is a major fishing country, there are British fishermen in British waters, a lot of them – there are also many European fishermen – but they sell more than 70% of their catch in the single market. So we’re starting not necessarily from a needy position, but from a power relationship position.

So we’ll have to embark on all this positively, with great vigilance, but we’re ready for that, and we’re not alone: it’s not only France in the debate. It’s not only Brittany, either. (…) This package will also include the talks with Jersey and Guernsey, because the London Convention and the Granville Bay Treaty will have to be reviewed in the course of the year, in the comprehensive talks on the whole fishing industry.

Those are the government’s commitments, and that’s how determined it is on the issue, but more generally on the need to have a comprehensive agreement where we must take the time necessary to achieve the best possible relationship with the UK.

There are other issues we’ll certainly discuss and which the French President also mentioned this morning in an important speech on France’s strategic challenges; there are other issues where we have a very strong relationship with the UK that we want to maintain. There are two immediate ones that are going to be the focus of special events in the course of 2020: first of all the strategic relationship, with the Lancaster House agreement, whose 10th anniversary is going to be celebrated. I remind Claude Renoult that all this began in 1998 with a meeting in Saint-Malo between President Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

All this led to the Lancaster House agreement, which is a very important agreement for both our own security and that of the British. So our interests are shared. And we’ll also have to… there’s a history, this year will be the 80th anniversary of the 18 June Appeal, and also our history of shared battles, including today, in areas of difficulty and conflict that we may encounter, be it in the Middle East or Africa. In short, we’ll have to continue this discussion, which is bilateral really but a number of points also have EU connotations.

And we also have the great climate challenge. The COP26 summit is going to be held in Glasgow. In Glasgow! And so the British are hard at work. We’ll have to work with them on the challenges of protecting the environment, on which, incidentally, we have more points of agreement than disagreement. It’s all part of the package! And so we’re beginning an intense period in which – and I’d like to finish on this – we’ll also have to question ourselves, i.e. the European model we want to develop, because that’s also the question Brexit raises. It’s the fact that we were unable to counteract lies and misinformation which therefore led to their rejection [of the EU] and the vote we’re aware of in the UK in June 2016. So now, with a new Commission, a new challenge for Europe, we must ensure Europe asserts its sovereignty.

Finally, Brexit may be a spur for Europe to assert its sovereignty, assert its power, and assert at the same time, in the strategic, economic and industrial spheres, not only that it is a major market but also that it has a strength enabling it to play its role as a power in the face of other major powers which – if Europe didn’t shoulder its responsibilities – would use Europe as a playground, deprive Europe of its own destiny and even lead to its being left behind by history. (…)./.

Published on 11/02/2020

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